It’s a song about the collapse of a relationship — a marriage I’m guessing — and the passive aggressive ways the man and woman ignore what’s staring them right in the face.
The atmosphere here is summed up by the wife’s biting words in the opening verse: “If he really loved me, I wouldn’t have to be so mean.”
For his part, the husband retreats to the souvenirs of his youth (perhaps he’s the man longing to live in the video from yesterday’s song).
In the bridge, Folds as narrator delivers a little nugget of wisdom that’s obviously too late to help this pair: “The cruelest lies are often told without a word; the kindest truths are often spoken, never heard.”
In the last two verses, the tension bubbles up to the top and the couple explodes at each other. I love that the music explodes right along with them, with Folds banging on his piano with primal rage.
I have a theory that as you repeatedly listen to an album you love, it grows in your estimation step by step until it reaches a plateau and then starts to diminish a bit. The downward slope isn’t as steep as the upward slope… it isn’t really much of a slope at all. It’s just a leveling off to a point of comfortable and happy acceptance.
I suppose this curve could be applied to romantic relationships as well, with the giddiness of falling in love settling into the comfort of longtime commitment.
But back to albums. If you’re lucky, you’ll get to fully experience the peak of that curve, the moment when the album affects you like it never has before and never will again. Usually we forget that moment among the many other things we’re doing in our lives. But sometimes it sticks with you.
In the case of Ben Folds Five, my peak experience came during a workday when for some reason I had an occasion to drive to South Beach and run an errand. I played this album in my car on the way. I don’t know how long I’d had it at that point… probably more than a couple of weeks but fewer than a couple of months. I knew it by heart by then but it still felt new.
I remember listening to this song, driving down Washington Avenue, and banging my fist against the steering wheel in time with Folds’ percussive piano playing. I felt like the music was not just around me but inside me. That’s one of the best memories I have of physically listening to music, beating out even live concert experiences.
Moments like that are why I listen to music.
At half past three
Shook her head to see him
Snoring in his sleep
“If he really loved me,”
“I wouldn’t have to be so mean.”
He’s a heap of junk that
Pours from his top drawer
He sometimes likes to spread it
Out around the floor
It’s evidence of what he was like
He likes to remember when
Sha-la-la sha-la-la sha-la-la
The end is growing near
And we’re treading water now
And holding back our tears
And the day is rising
We’re sinking, sha-la-la-la-la
In a minute it will all be coming down
And they know it now
But no one makes a sound
It’s such a shame to
Ruin this bright, lazy sunny day
The cruelest lies are often told
Without a word
The kindest truths are often spoken,
“You’ve been pushing me
Like I was a sore tooth
You can’t respect me
‘Cause I’ve done so much for you.”
He said, “well, I hate that
It’s come to this, but baby,
I was doing fine
How do you think that I
survived the other twenty-five before you?”